Each Lord’s Day Christians across the world recite in communal worship the words of the Lord’s Prayer. While it is unfortunate that this practice has been removed from many congregational worship services, the words of the prayer are familiar to many believers, to the point that they can recite the prayer word for word.
Yet, despite our acquaintance with the prayer Jesus gave his disciples to pray, we may not have grasped both the meaning and significance of the words of the prayer. Over the next few weeks, I will be offering a reading of the Lord’s Prayer that seeks to capture the essence of Jesus’ statements and how these remain powerful words for our own lives of discipleship.
Before addressing the specifics of the prayer, however, we need to have an understanding of why Jesus offers this particular prayer to his disciples. While Luke tells us that Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them how to pray, we should not assume that they did not know how to pray before they met Jesus. As Jews, they would have offered regular and faithful prayers to God.
So when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, it is not because they did not know how to pray. Rather, they asked because they recognized Jesus to be the one sent from God, and they understood that they needed to have a new focus for their prayers. Thus, they were concerned that they pray rightly for God’s coming kingdom. In answer to their request, Jesus gave them the prayer we find in Luke 11:1-4, and in a different version, in Matthew 6:9-13. Matthew’s version will be the primary focus of my discussions.
The prayer begins with the well-known address to God as “Our Father.” These words do not constitute a formal address to a distant unknown God, but an intimate appeal to a God who is near to us and who cares for us. Jesus teaches us to pray in this way, because he himself prayed this way. Jesus would have spoken Aramaic, and in his prayers to God he called God Abba. This was a common way for Hebrew children to refer to their fathers, and it served as a term of intimacy, signifying the close relationship a child had with her father.
We need to be careful with this term, however, for two reasons. First, while popular views have suggested that this term Abba is equivalent to our use of the term daddy, and some Christians have practiced addressing God in this way, Abba is probably not exactly equivalent to our term daddy and we need to be cautious in how we address God.
Second, we must not suppose that the use of Father or Abba in reference to God assumes that God’s characteristics are exclusively masculine, or that referring to God in male terms supports any ideas of male superiority over women in either nature or practice. Indeed, while the scriptures do use masculine nouns and pronouns to refer to God, there are scriptural images that reflect God’s femininity. Still, the term Abba does help us see the intimate relationship Jesus was defining between the disciples and God.
Why does Jesus instruct us to refer to God as our Abba? The simple answer is that it reflects Jesus’ own practice of prayer and intimacy before God. The Gospels are replete with references to Jesus’ intimacy with God, beginning at the event of his baptism and continuing through to the intimate moments in the garden just before Jesus’ arrest, where, according to Mark, Jesus calls out to God using the term Abba. This intimate relationship, however, is also extended to Jesus’ followers as they are welcomed into the new family of God, over which God is the loving and caring Abba.
Thus, when we approach God our Abba in prayer, we address a God who both cares for us and who has the power to change the world. We pray to a living and loving God, who is not remote from humanity’s pain, but who, in the incarnation of Jesus, is God with us. When we approach God with authentic prayers, we come before a God who desires to hear our concerns because God is our Abba, and we kneel to a God who is able to meet our concerns because our Abba is God.
Thus, the God we approach in prayer is both intimate and transcendent, and the prayer Jesus gave his disciples to pray expresses intimate communication between the God who is close with us as our Abba, and who is at the same time transcendent above creation as holy God.